The thing that probably compromises me most, as somebody who sometimes gets to have a drop of influence in development stuff, is that I really like tall buildings. It’s an inane tendency. Probably overcompensation for the cul-de-sac suburbia of my youth. But when I was twelve, I even used to have my mom buy me reams of paper, so I could scrawl 15-foot long city skylines across them.
Skyscraper development, however, is rarely a pretty or purely benevolent thing. There have been several projects proposed in Providence over the last few years whose aesthetics have really gotten me going, but whose underpinnings are way sketchy. Some are better than others — the new Westin tower will have a unionized workforce, was built with union labor, didn’t get a tax break, and is nice to look at. But it’s the exception to the rule: Every other crane that’s risen over downtown in the last few years has gone up in support of a project that’s received a huge tax break from the city, and sometimes from the state too, following from whimsical and arbitrary processes. (Frequently including a few well-placed campaign contributions, and a threat to leave the state.) And it usually gets said tax breaks with little or no assurance of the provision of local jobs, affordable housing, or anything else that makes it concretely beneficial to the people who are conceding the dough.
Two of the more notable projects of the last couple of years are in limbos of sorts. 110 Westminster, responsible for the hole next to the Turk’s Head, has been announced and re-announced and re-announced again over the last several years. It was to be quite the spectacle: The tallest building in town and the tallest residential structure in all of New England, full of condos selling for up to $2.5 million a pop. It’s now clear that the deal is off, but there might be a W Hotel coming instead.
Also up in the air is the new headquarters for insurer (and frequent payer-offer of state officials), Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Rhode Island. A few years ago, the City gave a tax break to the two-tower Waterplace condo development, with a prospective tax break for the third and fourth build-able pads to the north of the towers. In retrospect it’s clear that this was a mistake, especially as there weren’t stringent restrictions on what sorts of projects would be eligible for the tax break. Blue Cross already rents from four different buildings in downtown Providence, and wants to consolidate its operations in a single building on the Waterplace site. That’s probably an okay idea in the abstract, but in practice it means that Blue Cross will get a $25 million tax break to move from one part of town to another, and that’s pretty dumb. The City Council is trying to figure out if it can block the move, but it seems unlikely.
But from a purely aesthetic standpoint the building looks great, and might represent the only chance we’ll have to save the appearance of Waterplace park: It merges the mod-glassiness of the GTech building with the scale of the horrific Waterplace towers; the height’s ideal for the location, and the lower floors’ pacing interacts well with the streetscape. And it’s in the perfect spot to give the skyline a bit more depth, which it’s been gaining, but still lacks.